A Double Whammy for Adventists

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I’m not sure where the expression “double whammy” originated. I think it came from an old-time comic strip—something to do with a powerful stare. If both eyes were looking at you, it was a “double whammy.”

The general meaning in use today is slightly different and more self-evident. A double whammy is when you face two major complicating factors—like your transmission giving out the day after you’ve been fired from your job.

The first whammy is that the old methods of reaching and retaining members don’t work as they once did.

Now before we overly lament the new challenges we face, we also need to understand that the advent of postmodern thought isn’t all bad.

While it’s true that many of the social and spiritual givens of yesteryear have been abandoned, the shift also means that some barriers that once existed are no longer barriers. At least not big ones.

For example, in a society in which everyone was at least nominally Christian and in which everyone uniformly saw Sunday as the day to go to church, the seventh-day Sabbath posed a major hurdle. Not so these days.

At least in the United States, many large congregations have services running each weekend from Friday night through Sunday night. You simply go when it’s most convenient for your schedule.

And in more secularized Europe or Australia, churchgoing itself is what’s novel, not the day of the week on which you happen to go.

Having acknowledged some benefits that come with postmodern thought—and there are many others that could be cited (see Jon Paulien’s article “The Postmodern Acts of God”)—it would be cavalier not to admit that some things are indeed more complicated than they used to be.

For example, the language, the presuppositions, the logic—much about traditional Christianity—is totally foreign to the mindset of postmoderns. To them, it’s as if we’re “speaking in tongues.”

And while they may admire our enthusiasm (more likely, they’ll just see us as crazy!), they simply can’t relate to our system of thinking.

Our current challenge is to communicate eternal truths in a manner that rings true for the postmodern without compromising the essence of the Christian message.

But note that I’m setting up an “us” versus “them” dichotomy that doesn’t truly exist. All of us are, in varying degrees, affected by postmodernity.

I don’t view life the way my father did—because I’m part of the world as it exists now.

So, in reality, they are us and we are them. It’s just that some of us/them are a little further along the continuum than others.

Remember, postmodernity isn’t all bad.

Postmoderns seek experiential truth rather than propositional truth. In fact, they probably wouldn’t even use the term “truth.”

They’d be much more likely to talk about an “authentic experience.”

But the reality is that experiential truth—an authentic experience—has always been the goal. We’ve simply lost sight of it.

The fact that the seventh-day is the Sabbath isn’t nearly as important as the experience that God wants us to enter into because of the Sabbath.

The fact that Jesus was resurrected from the dead is essentially useless unless it translates into certainty in our own lives that because Jesus was resurrected, we too will be resurrected.

For too long we’ve felt our mission was accomplished when people merely said the words the way we thought they should.

We haven’t paid enough attention to ensuring that the words were “made flesh,” and that the truths we presented were transformed into experience.

Postmoderns aren’t going to let us get away with such slackness any longer. And that’s really a wonderful thing. But it also jolts us. It’s all part of the first whammy.

The second whammy is that most Adventist congregations aren’t positioned to welcome postmoderns into fellowship.

Note that I said fellowship, not membership. Membership would be an even bigger problem.

Now before I focus on some of our corporate weaknesses, let me say this clearly: The Seventh-day Adventist Church has a great track record when it comes to evangelism.

We’ve been at it for many a decade, and the results are nothing to sneer at.

We’ve been right up there with the best of them when it comes to church growth—especially when we calculate on a global scale.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t improve or that we don’t need to improve.

Our main approach to evangelism has been to call people together in a neutral venue to share with them compelling information about the Bible’s end-time prophecies.

Having convinced them that time is short and that getting right with God is a life-and-death issue that needs immediate attention, we go on to tell them how they should live.

In a mere five weeks, five nights a week, we seek to convince them of the urgent need to set their spiritual lives in order. We outline how they should live.

And we urge them to give up habits and practices that are unacceptable to us.

By the time we shift the venue to the local church, they’ve either dropped out or have done a fair job of conforming to our expectations.

Ironically, having reached the church’s standards in just five weeks—tithe payers who don’t smoke, drink, gamble, dance, or carouse—they’ve arrived.

After these quick and drastic changes, they could go for the rest of their lives making no additional adjustments, and they would be quite acceptable Adventists.

It isn’t so tidy in postmodernity. Postmoderns are on a quest. For them, it’s a journey.

Postmoderns want to see religion modeled, not just described. After they’ve watched it from afar long enough to determine that’s it’s not phony, they want to test-drive it.

They’re unlikely to want to sign on any dotted lines until they’re sure they’ve found what they’re looking for.

They’re going to be cautious. They know there are a lot of charlatans out there—both of the individual and institutional varieties.

The modern convert wanted truth. The postmodern wants authenticity and community. The modern convert joined the community because it had the truth.

For the postmodern, true community is a goal in itself. Adoption of a totally new belief system is going to take a lot longer than five nights a week for five weeks.

Which means that potential converts are going to want to rub shoulders with the congregation before they buy into Adventist behavioral expectations.

In short, they’re going to arrive at the church still “dirty.”

Sadly, not many congregations are prepared to allow their “saints” to rub shoulders with those who haven’t signed the statement of belief, let alone reached the expected behavioral standards.

Not many congregations want highly unorthodox—if not heretical—questions asked in Sabbath School. Statements of that ilk are even more disconcerting.

And blue jeans for worship and cigarette butts in the parking lot are more than most Adventist congregations can take.

Yet if we want the postmodern to be attracted to us, if we want to model what true religion is all about, if we want to effectively reach out to those for whom Christ died, then dealing with people who are still “dirty” is a price we’re going to have to be willing to pay.

In our postmodern world, fewer and fewer are going to be “cleaned up” before they are ushered into our church buildings.

For those congregations willing to put in the effort and pay the price that effective ministry to postmoderns requires, I’d say, Beware.

Because you may be in danger of getting hit by a third whammy.

And what’s that? A substantial influx of people who find such openness and such transparent concern to be simply irresistible.

By James Coffin

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